Friday, 1 May 2009

On Error

In Japan, I once had a class comprised of four young ladies who had just finished college and were working towards their Mrs. degrees. They were sweet, pleasant girls who spoke passable English, but they all had the same fault: they hated making mistakes. Their compositions reflected this: their prose was painfully accurate and unadventurous, meticulously penned in copperplate. Every sentence carefully followed the subject-verb-object formula. They took no risks -- and they bored me half to tears.

I used to dread marking their compositions, which invariably went like this:

I went to my friend's house on Saturday. We played tennis. We had a lunch at Bon Appetit. We went for a drive in Den-en-chofu. We enjoyed ourselves very much. I went home. I helped my mother in the kitchen. I did my homework. Then, I went to bed.

One day another student joined this class. Fumiko was a young housewife, the mother of two small children, and a real breath of fresh air. Every day she came into class with funny stories about her family. She rolled her eyes and giggled as she told us about squabbles and skinned knees, and her English was atrocious, but creative and wonderfully communicative. Her compositions were almost too ambitious, but they never once bored me. She obviously worked with a dictionary, and she was a firm believer in incorporating English proverbs into her prose.

Whenever I sat down to mark Fumiko's English journal -- which she turned in to me on a weekly basis -- I reached for the aspirin. You could tell that she had scrawled her entries at the kitchen table: there were spots of grease, ketchup, and soy sauce on the pages, and Fumiko's handwriting was nowhere near as neat and precise as her classmates'. But I always marveled at her creative, adventurous use of English and I laughed myself silly at her humor, both accidental and intentional:

I am tell husband finishing homeworks when after dinner is finished eating. His thinks everytime after finishing dinner doing nothing because man's job allready finished. I am tell my jobs never finished. When woman becomes mother, all labor increases: Putting one's baby to breast, cooking dinner's preparations, and clean floor's. I say him "You come home as work is finished but I have homeworks even sleep time!!" We disputing all day long, again and again. A man will work from sun to sun, but woman's work is never done!

When Fumiko got her compositions back, I could see her classmates glancing from their virtually unmarked sheets to hers, on which I had always written plenty of comments. I could read quiet victory in their eyes: Look, our compositions are perfect, but Fumiko has made so many errors!

Fumiko didn't seem to mind what the others thought. She stayed after class when she could and asked me endless questions about grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and colloquialisms. She brought her Japanese-English proverbs dictionaries to class and we would pore over them together, trying to find the proverbs which were the most contemporary and useful. Proverbs are used more often in Japanese than they are in English and I had my work cut out for me convincing Fumiko that it was possible to overdo it with proverbs in English. Still, after a while I could see the value of having some of the more structurally accurate, commonly used English proverbs at the tip of your tongue. But even as I managed to convince her that proverbs weren't always useful in English, she managed to persuade me that they were useful in Japanese; I began to see that even the tritest cliches could contain pearls of wisdom. In fact, through Fumiko, I got hooked on Japanese proverbs. And a year later, Fumiko's English had vastly improved while the others had made only modest progress. Cliche though it is, Fumiko had truly learned from her mistakes.

I learned from her mistakes too. And although there were occasions when I wondered what in the world she was talking about, Fumiko became my role model when I started writing Japanese in earnest. I took risks; I was adventurous; I put my all into my compositions, resigned myself to making the occasional howler, and pored over my teacher's painstaking corrections and explanations.

And I bought an entire series of Japanese proverb books and dictionaries, and learned dozens of them. To this day I can still bore my kids by reciting the appropriate proverb when the occasion demands, and they've even learned some themselves.

So thank you, Fumiko. Thank you for showing me such a good example. Thank you for hours of entertainment, and who cares about the headaches? And thank you very much for getting me hooked on proverbs. 七転び八起き Nana korobi, ya oki, or Fall down seven times, get up eight. (If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.)

A real pearl of wisdom, that. And it's come in handy for a lot more than language learning.


Bish Denham said...

A good beginning makes for a good ending. English proverb.

Meg Wiviott said...

What a wonderful way to learn that being perfect isn't all it's cracked up to be!

Charles Gramlich said...

Great story. It's this kind of thing I want and which those students who plagiarize cost themselves.

adrienne said...

It's a great lesson in communicating, too. So much more of her personality comes through, despite the mistakes.

Carolie said...

Great story, Mary! I can certainly empathize with you about your current favorite student is a blast, and learning at the speed of light, because she's willing to make mistakes and to TRY.

My least favorite student is the opposite. She's a sweet, fashion-plate doctor's wife, with no children, and fills her time with dance classes, music classes, and tours to Italy and France. I think the English class is her husband's idea, as she doesn't seem to have much enthusiasm for our classes. I DREAD our weekly English conversation classes, because she won't speak unless she's certain she'll be entirely correct.

I speak, she smiles. I speak, she simpers. I finally ask a simple question to which I KNOW she knows the answer, and she brightens visibly and carefully repeats the memorized answer. *sigh*

I love Japanese proverbs, but have not been able to find many. My favorite is something about "Before worrying about your neighbor's small eye-boogers, take care of your own giant nose-boogers." (Although, I think the actual word used is even more vulgar than "boogers"!) I'd be forever in your debt if you would e-mail me a few Japanese proverbs!

Kim Ayres said...

As a philosopher, I couldn't help but notice a fatal flaw in your final proverb. If you fall down 7 times, you can only get up 7 times...

Eryl Shields said...

Great story and very timely for me as I begin work on my final portfolio. The temptation to try and be perfect can overwhelm, though I know well that without risk it's impossible to create.

angryparsnip said...

Your blog today was great and I really like Japanese Proverbs and enjoy the way they are used in everyday life.

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- All's well that ends well? (Is that the same thing?) Hmm, that'll have me thinking all night. A simple mind means a happy heart: I just coined that one for myself!

Meg -- Being perfect must be a crashing bore -- or so I'd like to think.

There was a time when my imperfections bothered me a lot more than they do now. But if having a perfect life didn't make us bored, it would certainly make us lonely.

Charles -- Honestly, I could not agree more. I love getting papers that have been sweated over, every word wrung out of a tired brain. How pissed off and cheated I feel when I get some Wikipedia crap copied down at the last minute.

Adrienne -- Fumiko had an amazing personality too, and the feistiest spirit. I'm glad that came through.

Carolie -- I can sympathize with you for having a student like that! I once taught a class that had quite a few doctors' wives in it. One in particular was a star student. Her husband, she told me, had given her the gift of two hours off a week (she worked as his medical secretary) so that she could study English. Just thinking about this woman now makes me feel like crying. I had no idea at the time how hard her life must have been with such a controlling man for a husband.

Unfortunately, I had dozens of students who seemed to feel that language learning was parroting back the teacher's 'perfect' speech. This ensured that their brains were never contaminated with errors. It doesn't make for a fun exchange, does it?

I think the kotowaza you're thinking of is 目糞鼻糞を笑う (mekuso hanakuso wo warau) -- literally 'Eye crud laughing at nose crud', or 'the pot calling the kettle black'. In storage, I still have at least a dozen books of proverbs, but I'll try to put together a good list and send it to you!

Kim -- You know, the minute I wrote that, I wondered if anyone else would notice it. I'm not a philosopher and I'm math challenged, and I noticed it too! It would probably be better translated as 'get up one more time than you fall down'.

Eryl -- Aim to put in the essential Zen flaw that makes the whole portfolio stand out as all the more perfect! I can't remember what that's called in Japanese, but I've always loved the idea of -- almost -- enforced sloppiness.

AP -- Thank you. The great thing about proverbs is that they distill complex ideas into neat little phrases and save you all the trouble of expressing them yourself. I guess that's the bad thing about them too, come to think of it, but I still love them.

Robin said...

That was such a nice story! I want to hear more Japanese proverbs!! Fumiko sounds like loads of fun. It sounds like a good lesson for writing in general. Too perfect is boring.

The 4 ladies' perfect journals remind me of the diary I found from when I was 7 years old. "I went to the dentist today. It hurt. Leslie was mean to me. I hope she's nice tomorrow." Yeesh.

kara said...

aren't you glad we're beyond the era when mistakes like those came with lashings? me too.

Natalie said...

Lovely post, Mary! I have 4th/5th grade students who are like the majority of your class--pre-adolescence seems to be when kids decide it's more important not to come across as stupid than it is to learn something new. Sigh.

I wish Fumiko could see your post!

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- Ooh, you'll regret ever asking to hear more proverbs! You stick around and your eyes will soon glaze over.

I have almost all my old diaries from age 9 through we-won't-say. It takes real courage opening them up and reading. I can remember one entry where I'd obviously been at a loss for something to write about: "We got a new can opener" was my entry for that day. One thing's for sure: I've definitely got more to say for myself now.

Kara -- Did they really HIT you for making mistakes? And did it make any difference? Let me know! Because believe me, I've tried just about everything else...

Natalie -- I do too. Her real name isn't Fumiko, but I kept in touch with her through another teacher friend for years. She ended up going to the States with her family and doing very well there as a math teacher.

Kim Ayres said...

Actually you only have to get up the same number of times you fall... *cough*

Kit said...

This is a great story - fear of failure is so stultifying, but we all so hate being laughed at. Fumiko's writing really shows the value of just going for it and communicating no matter the mistakes.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Yeah, but not if you start off on the ground in the first place :)

Kit -- I agree. I've had colleagues who frowned on errors and felt that they were like weeds, but whenever I've learned a language, the only way that's worked for me has been the 'get in there and communicate' approach. You have to make a lot of errors at first, but as long as you keep plugging away, you eventually improve.

Leigh Russell said...

Who was it said "A man who never made a mistake never made anything" or words to that effect. It might have been Mark Twain. Anyway, it's a great saying. I used to have it displayed on my classroom wall.

Merry Monteleone said...

When woman becomes mother, all labor increasesAnd How!

I love this, Mary. I also secretly harbored the belief in grade school that the most perfect student wasn't really the brightest, they just followed the rules better... then again, that concept might've sprung from the fact that I've never been close to perfect :-)

Anne Spollen said...

You should write essays about all your teaching adventures. Actually, what I mean is compile them into a book -- it would be great.

We have our Malaysian houseguest back with us. He got sick and was coughing constantly, and when I asked him what the dr said he had, he painfully struggled, then answered triumphantly:

I think you have a lot of these stories at your fingertips...(sorry, you have to bear with the
pushy writing teacher in me ; )

Katie Alender said...

LOL @ the can opener!

I've always been pretty good with languages, but it amazes me that, even living in LA, I never speak Spanish. Even when I know enough to get my point across better than in English, I keep my mouth shut. It's slowly dawning on me how dumb that is; it's not like I judge people who speak "beginning" English. AND I enjoy it.

*shaking fist in the air because Mary me me think*

Katie Alender said...

I mean MADE me....

*shakes fist in the air because of stupid typo*

Mary Witzl said...

Leigh -- That's a great saying, and one I'd like to post in my own classroom somewhere. It is so sad that so many pithy sayings tend to be written off as cliches. It is also sad that we don't fully understand the wisdom of most until we've been knocked around a little in life.

Merry -- Since having my own kids, I've had occasion to remember Fumiko's 'labor increases' sentence and how true it is!

I was a nerdy, shy, airy-fairy little slob in elementary school, and partly in awe of the kids who knew all the rules and how to follow them. And like you I also wondered if they weren't just mindlessly and unimaginatively better at following the rules. I really hoped that was the case, too.

AnneS -- I love 'lungchitis', but I hope it was 'bronchitis' and not 'pneumonia'!

Right now, I do these teaching stories to keep my sanity and push myself to write SOMEthing. And it's great having people read and comment on them. But it's my wips (as in rhymes with whips) that I'm spending the most time on. If I ever get any of them published, maybe I'll start on my teaching tales. But please feel free to push me -- it's an honor to be pushed!

Katie -- In L.A. you never know if Spanish-speakers will prefer Spanish or English, or if their English will be so much better than your Spanish that you'll feel silly. But once the swine flu scare is over, there's a world of beautiful Spanish down in Mexico, just waiting to be cracked into. I'll never forget my first trip to Mexico, how wonderful it was to meet people who had no English at all: I had no alternative but to try Spanish. And most Mexicans I met were infinitely encouraging and kind.

Now, if you wanted to learn French in France, I might have to give you different advice...

Chris Eldin said...

AWWW! I loved that you finished this post with a proverb. Do you ever wonder what became of these students?

Robin said...

"I got a new can opener." Hahahaha! That will keep me going for a while. Thank you so much.